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“Social Network” Before The Internet

Published: March 20, 2017

Social networks and women have a relationship that predates the Internet, according to Jeannette Acevedo Rivera, a professor of Spanish in the Romance/German/Russian Languages and Literatures Department.

Acevedo Rivera researches educated 19th century Spanish and French women and their interest in collecting contributions from top writers and artists in leather albums, with an occasional note from potential suitors.

“I want to know more about women who sought space in the public sphere,” she said. “Knowing about 19th century women helps me to understand what women face in the 21st century.”

Her primary research interest for the last two years has been the album.

“When 21st century readers hear the word ‘album,’ they think of many things but not what was meant in the 19th century,” she explained. “Women collected in albums the contributions of friends, acquaintances and even suitors. Poetry, drawings and musical scores vied for space in these books.”

Albums became the 19th century counterparts of today’s social networks, according to Acevedo Rivera.

“Women established social networks using these books,” she said. “It was mainly women who owned them, although there are some cases of male-owned albums. The album phenomenon offers us a chance to study gender interactions and exchanges as well as social class and economic transactions in the 19th century. Only women from certain social classes could afford to buy these albums. They were leather bound and their pages were made of expensive paper. The point of the album was to have all these contributions from people who were important in their areas–writers and painters, for instance. There were musicians who contributed musical scores.”

The women who made the albums were proud of them.

“Women wanted to have these books,” she said. “It was the cool thing to do to get together and proudly exhibit them. They were displayed in their living rooms for guests to see. What I want to know is, who contributed? Who wrote in the albums? And who owned them?

“Albums were a way for women to show they had these social connections,” Acevedo Rivera added. “Through these objects, we can discover so much about 19th century women and their desire to have a space in the public social sphere. The album trend was a way to establish literary and artistic connections and to be acknowledged as someone with participation in public exchanges.”

Women were making albums in the 19th century in the same way they interact with social networks today.

“The albums included drawings and Facebook has pictures,” she said. “Albums shared musical scores while on Facebook members can share music videos. You can write text on Facebook while contributors added poems to albums. We can see how people have engaged similarly with these social networks and the type of cultural production they promote. In both the album and Facebook there is even the possibility of flirting. There were lots of gender exchanges in albums. There are technological differences between the album and contemporary social networks, but also many similarities. In the end, both demonstrate the desire of human beings to establish connections, to be part of something.”

A native Puerto Rican, Acevedo Rivera earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Comparative Literature at the University of Puerto Rico and, in 2014, she finished her Ph.D. in Romance Studies at Duke University.

Jeannette Acevedo Rivera
Jeannette Acevedo Rivera

Many albums survive in French and Spanish archives. The Museum of Romanticism in Spain has some, as well as the Spanish and French national libraries and others are available online, according to Acevedo Rivera, who will return to Madrid’s Museum of Romanticism this summer to deliver a talk on the albums with another trip planned to France’s National Library.

Acevedo Rivera remembers feeling impressed when she first analyzed the albums in the French and Spanish archives.

“Some of the archives required me to wear gloves and sometimes that meant being watched the whole time by the librarian,” she recalled. “If I took pictures, I had to specify exactly which pages I wanted.”

The albums gave Acevedo Rivera a new perspective.

“Once I saw them, I knew I had to attempt to identify who the original owners were,” she said. “They often turned out to be the wives of artists and journalists. That helped me to see social networks. At the same time, I was able to recognize the transnational nature of this phenomenon. Many Spanish women had contributions from French writers, since they knew this would add value to their albums. When they or their friends traveled to France, they made sure the albums went along.”

Reading the albums was a way of making conversation with their women creators.

“When I looked at the albums that once belonged to real 19th century women, I saw why they were seen as important enough to donate to a museum. There are so many stories in these books,” Acevedo Rivera said. “There are pages with entries glued over the original pages. That means there was a contribution that someone wanted to hide. There will be conversations between contributors in the same albums. A husband will comment on his wife’s album. Then other men will make contributions directed to the husband. In Balzac’s novel La Muse du département, the wife asks for contributions to her album from several men, including her lover. The album became a way for him to seduce her.”